Friday, June 14, 2019

A Night in November – an amazing evening of theatre not to be forgotten (Lyric Theatre until 21 June + NI tour)

The 25th anniversary production of A Night to Remember is a remarkable piece of theatre. Marie Jones’ 1994 script captures the internal battle as dole clerk Kenneth Norman McCallister wakes up to the sectarian hatred and discrimination which he has been part of and begins to question the shaky foundations of his Protestant identity.

While it’s a Troubles play, Jones doesn’t engineer the audience to laugh along with the sectarian behaviour. At least not the way her son Matthew McElhinney expertly directs the play. Nor does she turn it into a pity party. A Night to Remember is about getting under the skin of Belfast residents of the 1990s and understanding their motivations.

The intelligent script is brought to life by Matthew Forsythe who owns the stage as Kenneth from start to finish, while weaving in and out of everyone else he encounters and talks to along his journey. Multi-roling is more and more common in plays, but this is a level above what’s normally seen. Rehearsals must have been like a brutal boot camp in order to drill such sharp yet nuanced shifts of stance and demeanour into the performance. But the work and attention to detail has paid off. Veterans of Mydidae will smile in the second half as Forsythe bashfully makes a quick change!

The first half – nearly a complete play in itself – sees Kenneth accompany his father-in-law to the Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland qualifying game in Windsor Park. The behaviour of the NI fans audibly upsets some in the theatre audience, with tuts and gasps to be heard above the chanting and racist impersonations on stage. But Kenneth’s reaction and revulsion puts this horror in context.

After the interval, the pace intensifies with an explosive dinner party and another football match, as Kenneth breaks free from the traditions and conduct with which he is longer happy to abide. The emotional crunch near the end is very moving as the euphoric bubble of victory is burst with the news of a murderous attack back home (dovetailing in with an excellent documentary film).

Garth McConaghie’s soundscape envelops the stage. The domestic sound of a vacuum cleaner is warm and rich and allowed to fill the whole space much like the roar of the crowd in Windsor Park. Together with Conleth White’s lighting design and Chris Hunter’s mirrored set, these elements enhance the acting.

While by no means conclusive or certain, recent election results suggest that a portion of the Northern Ireland electorate have shifted in how they want to express their politics. It feels very apt to watch Kenneth break free from his old habits and explore new and very unexpected ways of expressing his identity and his aspirations, albeit dressed up as some sort of mid-life crisis that allows him to abandon home and work without telling anyone. Watching A Night in November brings home the distance we have travelled, while underscoring how many old suspicions and tensions and chants (on and off the field) remain just under the radar.

If a show ever deserved a standing ovation – which Belfast audiences tend to hand out at the drop of a hat – then the combination of Marie Jones’ writing, Matthew Forsythe’s acting and Matthew McElhinney’s direction merit long applause for a very special piece of live theatre that captivates and engages throughout.

Playing in the Lyric Theatre until 21 June, Soda Bread Theatre are taking the show out on the road and visiting Bangor, West Belfast, East Belfast, Newcastle, Limavady, Mullingar, Ballymena, Enniskillen, Cushendall, Armagh, Newtownabbey, Lisburn, Coalisland, Monaghan, Antrim and Derry in August and September.

Photo: Chris Hunter

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Girl on the Train - a great adaptation and superb set mechanics deliver a modern theatrical whodunit (Grand Opera House until 15 June)

While many in the Grand Opera House audience seemed familiar with either the original novel or the film adaptation, for those of us who were coming fresh to Paula Hawkins’ plot of The Girl on the Train, we found a fabulous piece of modern whodunit theatre.

The premise is that Rachel, an alcoholic woman with an unreliable and incomplete memory, discovers that someone she has regularly seen – out of her commuter train window while it’s been stopped at points – has gone missing. The house was only a couple of doors away from where her ex-husband still lives, and in parallel with the police investigation, Rachel inveigles herself into conversations with key witnesses and associates of the missing woman.

She’s like a modern-day Miss Marple feeding the local police detective with information he couldn’t normally be expected to uncover through his traditional methods, all the while making herself look more and more like the chief suspect as she weaves an ever larger and more complicated web of deceit.

Jack Knowles’ lighting is precise and Andrzej Goudling’s projections subtly animate the dark space and create an impressive representation of a moving railway carriage. The train theme is kept running with some of the James Cotterill’s detailed sets moving onto the stage as if on rails. Scenes flick between locations with a speed and lack of fuss that many other productions could learn from: it’s often as fast as turning a page. Kirsty Oswald appears on stage as the missing woman in flashbacks, with an elegant costume which slowly fades to black as we speed towards her character’s dark end.

Samantha Womack is convincing in her role as the subdued and through-other titular character. As Rachel reduces her alcohol intake, Womack becomes noticeably less clumsy and more stable. John Dougall triggers much levity with his dry wit as DI Gaskill. Naeem Hayat (the therapist), Adam Jackson-Smith (Rachel’s ex-husband) and Oliver Farnworth (the missing woman’s boyfriend) bring a hint of menace and uncertainty to their less-than-perfect characters.

Superb set mechanics and lighting add to the air of mystery and keep the plot speeding down the tracks in this modern theatrical thriller. If you haven’t read the book or watched the film, The Girl on the Train is still an attractive and enjoyable drama that will keep your brain second guessing all the way through to the reveal near the end.

Just make sure you silence your phone if you do attend. This evening’s first half was interrupted by the Top Gun theme music erupting in the front circle while after the interval another phone interrupted a crucial scene (the actor froze and waited very patiently).

The Girl on the Train continues in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 15 June.

Production shots: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Diego Maradona – a life of promise and pain, a story of talent and discipline as well as chutzpah and cheek (QFT from 14 June)

New documentary profile film Diego Maradona suggests that the public, ebullient showman Maradona took over from the inner, less secure and more loveable Diego, plunging the footballer into the depths of substance abuse and away from the game that he so loved.

Maradona bore the burden of providing for his family from the age of 15, of feeding his craving for winning, of overcoming the hatred against him, of being unable to resist the opportunities that fed his addictions to women and cocaine, of becoming dependent on the Camorra crime syndicate for his supply of white powder, and of not being able to escape Napoli when he first asked to be released.

The high energy opening reveals the filmmaker’s hand and quickly establishes that Maradona is one of the all-time football greats and also seeds the doubt about whether he was ready for the fame and notoriety that followed his antics on and off the pitch. The audience are told that his success on the field is down to brain rather than brawn, with an understanding of how to adapt his footballing techniques to different situations, though we are also introduced to his personal coach who clearly boosts his already apparent high level of fitness.

The film concentrates on his time spent in Naples playing for the little-rated southern Italy team, building them up to national and European trophy wins, and the immediate aftermath of his fall from grace after encouraging Napoli fans to support Argentina in their World Cup game against Italy, recklessly staged in the Napoli stadium as part of Italia ’90. (That ‘hand of God’ moment from 1986 also features!)

Even recognising the peaks to which his career soared and the subsequent decline in personal and sporting fortune, the 130-minute run time is a tad indulgent and still doesn’t leave room to examine other aspects of Maradona’s legacy, for instance his political opinions.

Director Asif Kapadia never lets us see the people being interviewed about Maradona to be seen on-screen, relying instead on often grainy but very effective visuals from broadcast media outlets and behind-the-scene footage from family, fans and clubs. As someone who has never attended a professional football match, I am not really this film’s target audience, yet I found it strangely captivating as it unfolded the story of a life of promise and pain, of talent, skill and discipline as well as confidence, chutzpah and cheek.

Diego Maradona is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 14 June and will also be shown in the Odeon on Thursday 13 June as part of Docs Ireland.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Gloria Bell – the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug (QFT from 7 June)

Remaking a foreign-language films for an English market always risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater in order to make a commercial success. With Gloria Bell, director Sebastián Lelio returns to his 2013 Chilean Gloria with Julianne Moore in the titular role. Neither of that can do any wrong.

Opening with a slow zoom and a jump cut establishes the distinctive editing style of this character study that keeps the 102 minute film moving. She cuts a fashionable, awkward, worrying figure: a middle-aged divorcee who hangs around nightclubs in the hope of an opportunity to throw herself at some pleasant company. But the scrawny, neighbourhood cat seems to be the only man with a key to her apartment and a chance of finding the key to her heart.
“When the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing.”
No area of her life is off-limits to the camera. Laughing therapies, waxing (nothing to laugh about) and a trip to the paintball park owned by her new squeeze Arnold (John Turturro) are all occasions for the audience to question romance, happiness and manipulation.

Moore delivers a masterclass in awkwardness, navigating the conflicts and emotional family situations with a confidence that lets the audience sit back and enjoy the ride. At no point did the plot get its emotional hooks into me, but unusually that didn’t dampen my enjoyment. Gloria Bell is an incredibly satisfying film that deserves its explosive conclusion and the final song from karaoke queen Gloria.

With a great soundtrack, strong central performances and a thorough sprinkling of quirkiness, Gloria Bell is the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug. Embrace the opportunity to see it while you can at Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 7 June until Thursday 20 June.

Belfast Girls – transplanting an online character to the stage (The MAC until 23 June)

The MAC’s Luminaire Club is back with its cabaret-style tables and drinks service, producing a less formal and stuffy theatre environment. The now familiar tunnelled set with its rich array of lighting creates an intimate atmosphere that shows can exploit.

The Belfast Girls – Bernie Greene (Michael Mulcahy) and her friends Betty (Christina Nelson who also directs) and Michelle (Jazzmin McClure) – fancy a week away from Andytown in the sun. But when Bernie’s DLA is threatened, and boyfriend Shankill Joe’s affections wander elsewhere (though he always seemed shifty with an odd love for Bundoran), a dark cloud drifts over her tanning plans. The plot is flimsy and realistically just a vehicle for localised parody songs and some situation comedy as Nelson and McClure pop in and out of a range of secondary characters.

Extending a Facebook/YouTube sketch character into a 90-minute show is clearly difficult, particularly when the central actor’s unenthusiastic dancing skills are as laboured and lethargic as Bernie’s stiffened movement at her PIP assessment. The dialogue is puerile, the only effect of the constant expletives is to pad out sentences, and every “wee tramp” or “hoor” seems to be repetitively “talking shite”.

Nelson’s crotch-grabbing Shankill Joe is particularly memorable, and McClure’s Anne-Marie (Bernie’s posh, bobbed sister) adds a little villainy (though Mulcahy’s script allows the jeopardy to be revealed and then resolved in a single scene). Well-produced videos entertain between scenes, an enhancement to last year’s Waterfront run.

Aside from the lighting, the show’s strongest elements are the songs: I’m a Barbie Belfast Girl is well-crafted, the Venga Boys’ We’re Going to Ibiza parody betters the original, while the final reprise of How Dare You Speak To Me Like That got the audience up on their feet and singing.

Belfast stages have been blessed this week with two light-hearted shows that engender a febrile, hen party-like atmosphere in the audience. The Grand Opera House bar sensibly stays closed before and after The Real Housewives of Norn Iron’s interval, whereas the round table layout and the lure of the bar overpowered the plot leaving some MAC audience members wandering in and out.

The transaction with these shows seems to be offering simplistic entertainment in return for putting money into actor’s pockets. That’s not to be sniffed at, and it’s a long-established genre that owes a lot to James Young and many other fine performers who have graced club stages over the years. But what does it achieve?

The ladder that venues wish replenishing audiences to climb up may be somewhat mythical. But if it exists, I see little aspiration in extended sketch shows, never mind some local pantomimes, to hook people into anything more ambitious than splitting a few sides. It may keep the lights on in venues at a slow time of the year, but does make them more viable in the longer term? Contrast this with It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas at the Theatre at the Mill last December which managed to shine a tight spotlight on mental health at the same time as serving up the funny bits. It proved that it is possible.

Belfast Girls continues its run at The MAC until Sunday 23 June.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Real Housewives of Norn Iron (Grand Opera House until 8 June + NI tour)

You could argue that in penning The Real Housewives of Norn Iron, Leesa Harker has written a clever, satirical comedy which exposes local theatre audiences to the self-serving and scandal-hungry agenda of reality TV shows by transplanting a trashy US show to the environs of Northern Ireland with a brash emerald-suited host and four very different women. It’s nothing like the tame BBCNI There’s No Place Like Tyrone, but with Love Island returning to small screens and the ethics and standards of the Jeremy Kyle Show being raked over, the theme is very current.

There’s Cynthia, the posh-BT9er who is named purely for a particular equine joke, played by Roisin Gallagher with all the faux airs and graces that one might expect from the popular stereotype. Rosie McClelland excels as Dora, a Fermanagh farmer (and farmer’s wife) who sees life and recreation through a distinctly agricultural lens. Diona Doherty’s Iwonka battles with an insecure relationship underneath her public Insta-tastic hashtagging influencer front, while Harker-show veteran Caroline Curran revels in the role of Jean, a straight-talking Mum of six who doesn’t mince her words.

Patrick McBrearty plays the sleazy host, Terry Trousersnake, who has one eye on the show’s ratings and the other on its talent. As well as adding to the hen night frenzy with his ripped torso and gyrating groin, his character throws in plot grenades that reveal secrets to disrupt the female bon homie that breaks out once the women realise that they have more in common than divides them.

The on-stage caricatures are enhanced by mannerisms, knowing glances at the audience, and Curran’s ability to milk a scene for audience laughs when she knows she’s got them on a roll. The extended fart jokes and choreographed parodies of classic pop songs (with some nice harmonies thrown in) work well, but there’s nothing subtle about the humour of the performances (vulnerable children are as likely to be laughed at as Larne). Director Andrea Montgomery makes good use of the space around the simple set and characters comically disappearing over the side of the sofa add to the humour.

The audience settle down to roar with laughter once Curran delivers the first big swear about five minutes in, and while the energy dips just before the interval – the previous song would have been a stronger place to bring down the Opera House curtain – the cast of five keep the show tunnelling through its Viagra-boosted second half and towards the final crowd-pleasing reprise medley.

It’s undeniable that the majority female audience found it very entertaining on Tuesday evening. I was less convinced. Vulgarity has a place and can make for very effective theatre. But can also be tedious without a greater purpose. The plot’s ambition falls short of delivering a dynamic denouement that would build on the outbreak of girl power and allow the women to properly challenge or perhaps even turn the tables on the host who has humiliated them. These ‘real housewives of Norn Iron’ don’t seem to do revenge, even though it would have added greatly to the impact of the satire.

The adventures of The Real Housewives of Norn Iron continues in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 8 June, before touring through Lagan Valley Island, Lisburn (Tuesday 11 and Wednesday 19 June); Riverside Theatre, Coleraine (Wednesday 12); Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey (Thursday 13); Downshire (Friday 14); Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Saturday 15); Grand Opera House (Sunday 16); The Braid, Ballymena (Thursday 20); Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown (Friday 21); Millennium Forum, Derry (Saturday 22).

Friday, May 31, 2019

Mayday! Tragi-comedy peeks into the tormented mind of a Brexiting premier (Accidental Theatre until Saturday 1 June)

Mayday! opens with a medley of film clips that establishes audience sympathy with resigning Prime Minister Theresa May, Rosemary Jenkinson’s script slips into the premier’s office in Number 10 to witness a politician in considerable turmoil.

Jo Donnelly plays the exhausted and emotional leader with a pronounced accent, trademark kitten heels, stroking her leather armchair and displaying a whole catalogue of expressive eyebrows, scowls, grimaces and frowns.

This is a fantastical and quite sweary May who rants about “sweaty-bollocks Boris, bouncing around in his boxers”, hallucinates about opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn (who appears on stage in cardboard cut-out form), and talks into a phone handset which like her career has worked its way loose.

Interstitial video clips and red lighting up the hellish ante while Donnelly balances a stiff drink with her ever-present copy of the Withdrawal Agreement, lashing out with word and fist as she paces up and down her study. For local audiences, there’s a particularly pleasing phone interruption from a serial misspeaking Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and an anthem to Arlene Foster which accrues giggles.

Jenkinson’s own voice and frustrations cut through the biting script which has been constantly updated during rehearsals to adapt to the shifting political landscape. “Comedy makes you laugh; satire makes you laugh and think” she told me while previewing the show a fortnight ago.

Mayday! is a refreshing tragi-comedy that allows the pain of Brexit – no matter which side of the debate you sit on – to be parked and the focus to rest on the politician who delayed the assent of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove to the Iron Lady’s throne that has so recently filled by Theresa the Appeaser.

Donnelly and director Richard Lavery create a larger-than-life character that is awkward and vulnerable as well as distracted and maddened. We’re reminded that the so-called ‘Maybot’ is human, coping with the death of her parents, childlessness, diabetes … as well as backstabbing party colleagues. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for the distressed figure ... even as we roar with laughter as the PM’s vessel begins to sink.

The last performance of Mayday! is at 8pm on Saturday 1 June in Accidental Theatre in Shaftesbury Square.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Birds of Passage – watching the emergence of Colombian drug trade as it wrecks the lives of a tribe who become involved in its deadly supply (QFT from Friday 31 May)

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s new film Birds of Passage looks at the emergence of the Colombian drugs trade, through the eyes of an enterprising, young man Rapayet (José Acosta) from the Wayúu tribe who becomes involved in the supply of Marijuana to American charity workers somewhat, but not entirely, innocently as he tries to generate enough cash to pay for the bloated dowry to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes).

Her mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) is the matriarchal power of a family, controlling everything except her young wayward son Leonídas (Greider Meza) who inherits the position of head of the family but is spoilt by the prosperity that flows from the drug-fuelled hamster wheel that cannot be escaped. While the end-users and dealers in other countries are absent from the story, their supply is not portrayed as victimless, with brutal rivalries and distrust of alijunas (outsiders) soaking the dusty earth with spilt blood.

Split into five chapters and spanning 20 years from the 1960s into the 1980s, Birds of Passage steers clear of action-led thriller territory, yet in painting the human cost of the high-pressure unstable world of drug lords, it fails to develop some of the central characters.

Reyes depicts Zaida as shy in the opening scenes which establish Rapayet’s intentions as a suitor with a dance sequence with beautiful billowing visuals that the film never quite recreates again (though the destruction of a modernist house built in the dessert is pretty startling). Zaida shows some signs of developing aspects of her mother’s strength, but these are snuffed out and any three-dimensional notions are collapsed into a flat character that is sadly relegated to the margins of scenes.

Rapayet works across traditional boundaries, happy to collaborate with outsiders. There’s little emotion in Acosta’s portrayal of the independent-minded, strong-willed figure whose moral code doesn’t include the superstition, interpretation of dreams and ominous signs given by the natural world that adorn his mother-in-law’s duplicitous and increasing reckless leadership style.

The consequences deepen and dead bodies pile up as the tribal practice of gifting animals soon morphs into giving weapons as stakes are raised and communities become drenched in the danger that comes with the drug world. A memorable film, with high production values throughout its 125 minutes, offering a glimpse into a usually silent and troubled world that lost its innocence a long time ago.

Birds of Passage is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 31 May.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Beats – a gem of a film that drops its audience into the middle of the 1990s rave scene (QFT until 30 May)

I’ve a memory of standing uncomfortably against the wall of the Hollywood nightclub in Ipswich back in the winter of 1994. The music was loud, the beat could only be described as abdominal, and the headache was painful. After a long, slow diet coke, I drove back to the hotel in Felixstowe with one colleague at the earliest opportunity, leaving another two work mates bopping away.
“If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution!”

Brian Welsh’s new film Beats gets under the skin of the rave scene – the underground, often outdoor, dance events rather than the tame and gentrified nightclub ripoffs in 1994 Glasgow. New Labour was on the rise in parallel with upward mobility. People were migrating from the inner city out to the suburbs.

Johnno (Cristian Ortega) lives at home with his Mum and her policeman boyfriend. He is reserved and seems quiet, but his long-time oddball friend ‘Spanner’ (Lorn Macdonald) is his door into rave culture. D-Man (Derek, played by Ross Mann) “off the radio” speaks in clichés and is organising an illegal rave in a cat and mouse game with the boys in blue who are out to stop or break up the event. The anti-rave Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is on the horizon. The police aim to hit the young revellers hard; so too does Spanner’s humiliated brother.

Macdonald gives Spanner the air of uber-confidence, yet turns out to be just as hesitant as Ortega’s Johnno who portrays himself with handfuls of ambiguity and fluidity. While the action revolves around this bromance, Gemma McElhinney, Rachel Jackson and Amy Manson provide solid support as Laura, Wendy and Cat.

The exuberant second half of the film makes up for the dearth of music in first 45 minutes with somewhat dreamy yet oppressively strobing scenes. Filmed for the most part in black and white, the single rush of colour is reserved to put societal change and industrial collapse into context in the middle of a rave.

Ultimately, Beats is a film about camaraderie and friendship, less drug-celebratory than Dublin Oldschool, and less in-your-face than Trainspotting or T2, though no less poetic. Welsh has created a gem of a film that drops those of us who are thankful to be unfamiliar with his context right into the middle of a crowded and sensory-overloaded environment, like some kind of rave virtual reality game. It’s very effective and the relatively light storyline lets the atmosphere do the talking rather than the actors.

Beats (18) is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 30 May.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Now for the North – tender listening to herstory rather than history (Three’s Theatre Company at Lyric Theatre until 24 May)

Theatre can both lift us out of our current situation and allow us to step into the shoes of other people in other places, even in other times, and also help us to pause and examine ourselves in the light of an unfolding scene or pain.

While promenade theatre runs the risk of adding movement and discomfort to distract from the performance, it can also shift audiences into unusual locations that amplify the verbal and physical messages being imparted by the actors.

Three’s Theatre Company under the leadership of Anna Leckey has built a solid reputation for telling site-specific and engaging stories. Now for the North is being performed on the first anniversary of the Irish Referendum that repealed the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland.

Thirty of us stand in the women’s toilet downstairs in the south Belfast venue watching someone worry about the uncertain effectiveness of the morning after pill. Not unlike a rehearsal room or dance studio, the wide mirrors give normally unseen perspectives in a place that half the audience normally walk past on the way to the less roomy men’s facilities.

There’s a mixture of poetry (one set to dance), written word, music, monologues and conversations in rooms, landings and back stairs of the Lyric Theatre. Faces familiar from previous Three’s Company pieces as well as new talent can be seen out front and back of stage.

The typed-out thoughts of pregnant women and a GP (who feels that they are failing their patients by not being legally allowed to talk in any detail about the options they could consider) are accompanied by the shoes the people wore: very powerful props and imagery. A boyfriend (played by Cailum Carragher) wrestles with his instincts, emotions and values as he realises that the choice is not his. At one point there’s some added drama as two workmen step into a dark lift shaft and disappear from view.

The stand-out moment for me was a conversation between two young women planning a trip to a concert in Manchester. Gina Donnelly’s dialogue was bursting of humour – “it’s 50% of Oasis and it’s not 1996” – and pathos. While Rosie Barry gushes about the luxury-on-a-budget weekend they could enjoy, tealalolic Elisha Gormley’s character is uncomfortable with the idea of staying in a hotel (“[just] two teabags: for an Irish woman it’s not right”), turning to the audience and breaking the fourth wall to slowly explain how this suggestion brings back memories of a deeply painful and lonely experience. It’s an emotional triumph.

Having played around with romantic Valentines-inspired promenade theatre, Three’s Company have graduated to a new level of maturity and tackled something that can’t just be played for laughs or sympathy. The narrative thread present in some previous work is missing, choosing to tell unlinked stories rather than concentrate on a smaller number of characters.

Now for the North has poise and tact, believing in the power of listening the thoughts and feelings of relatable people who are making difficult choices in less than ideal circumstances to understand rather than judge them, without any need to resort to preaching blunt messages or relying on techniques that simply shock-for-effect. While Now for the North is undeniably a piece of campaigning theatre (and 20% of ticket sales are being donated to Alliance For Choice) it is mature and level-headed and will hopefully return for a longer and more developed run later in the year.

The final performance of this run of Now for the North was at 8.10pm in the Lyric Theatre.

All Mod Cons: moving, growing, changing, hitting - brand new drama at the Lyric Theatre until 9 June

Moving, growing, changing, hitting … it sounds like a lyric from a previously undiscovered verse of Daft Punk’s Technologic. But those verbs are at the heart of Erica Murray’s new play All Mod Cons.

Their mother’s funeral has brought siblings Jean (Mariah Louca) and Gary (Michael Shea) back under the one roof, but the house no longer feels like home. Elsewhere in the nameless city, Laura (Sophie Robinson) wants to escape from living with her parents and buy somewhere of her own. Hapless estate agent Gary (Michael Shea) mediates the somewhat fraught search process of viewing properties while the characters look into each other’s souls and find that underneath the surface, the foundations are shaky. Other than that, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot.

Murray is the Lyric Theatre’s artist-in-residence for 2019 and participated in their New Playwrights Programme which hosts rehearsed readings during Belfast International Arts Festival. While I didn’t catch All Mods Cons during the festival, it was a joy last night to see the talented playwright’s work given a full production run at the Lyric.

Murray poaches her characters in a pot of water alongside their past decisions, then gentling turning up the heat to simmer then, adding the flavour hidden secrets, before finally bringing them to the boil when matters and emotions fly out of control. External changes happen in parallel with internal changes.
“… the world is our oyster! / I don’t like oysters.”

It’s a credit to both the cast and the director Ronan Phelan that the emotional arc of the characters shifts so gently that the one we can’t stand early on becomes the only sane and straightforward figure by the play’s conclusion.

Most of the cast aren’t very familiar to the Lyric stage, giving the characters a freshness unencumbered with memories of previous roles and traits. McCurry brilliantly delivers the most uncomfortable and excruciating lines as Gary, a man who can no more conduct a friendly conversation than sell a house. Robinson doesn’t let Laura screech drown out her character’s humanity. Louca brings a warmth and strength to many scenes and doesn’t allow vulnerability to overpower Jean’s sense of confidence and assurance.

While I’m not quite sure why Diana Ennis decided not to give Gary a pair of trousers that would reach his ankles, the costumes work well. The ambiguous, low-key ending works well on paper, but confused last night’s audience who delayed their applause and seemed to expect more to happen when the stage suddenly went dark

The dowdy set with its mismatched furniture (much of it oddly piled up against a back wall for the later scenes) is flexible and while the video signposting and Katie Richardson’s interstitial music gives All Mod Cons a very televisual feel, both aspects are effective and well executed.

Rich performances, well-constructed characters, solid direction and plenty of surprises as the steam builds up make this a great step in what will hopefully be an enduring relationship between Erica Murray’s rich imagination and the Lyric.

All Mod Cons continues in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 9 June.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Mothers Out Front – a world leader gets wrapped up in a climate emergency #MothersKnowBest (Sole Purpose’s NI tour)

Three Mums plan an environmental protest at a rally in Dublin. But when the newest recruit rashly improvises, they end up kidnapping an orange-tanned toupée-wearing world leader wrapped up in a blanket and holding him in a rural farmhouse in the hope that the Paris Agreement will be implemented (assuming anyone wants him back).

Muire McCallion’s Maeve is a young and ebullient, fast-talking and quick-knitting extrovert who injects fresh energy and wild ideas into her local Mothers Out Front group. Bernie (Carmel McCafferty) is older and more temperamental, while Theresa (Abby Oliveira) was clearly the leader until Maeve started to step onto her shadow and now annoyingly flip flops between hating new ideas and totally embracing them.

Sole Purpose Productions have a history of staging challenging theatre with a firm grip on contemporary issues. Mothers Out Front has that potential to be a roller-coaster of a farce that hammers home the importance of reacting to the climate emergency. Instead, the premise is better than the structure of Edie Shillue’s script. While Oliveira, McCafferty and McCallion throw themselves wholeheartedly at the material they have to work with, the pace sags mid-way through and the scenes where the group rehearse videos they want to publish online turn into preachy fourth wall-breaking interruptions.

Last night’s performance in the Crescent Arts Centre was a bit pussyfooting rather than a Pussy Riot, although the balaclavas were colourful, the set contained some surprises, and there were many laughs along the way as the preposterous tale unfolded. Given that the script is packed full of statistics and factoids about the impact of climate change, it’s unfortunate that details around Twitter, WhatsApp and the radius of the black helicopter’s flightpath overhead are exaggerated.

Six years ago, Rosemary Jenkinson’s satirical Planet Belfast tackled dirty politics and green issues. Theatre is a terrific medium to explore the strengths and weaknesses is dearly-held worldviews. Yet Mothers Out Front somehow doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions to commit to a dramatic plot and trust that the message will be heard and instead resorts to a weaker form of propaganda that educates more than it entertains.

Directed by Patricia Byrne and produced by Sole Purpose Productions and Zero Waste North West, each performance is followed by a Q&A with the playwright. You can catch Mothers Out Front on Sunday 19 May at An Coire, Maghera; Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 22 at The Derry Playhouse; Wednesday 29 May at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh; and on Thursday 30 May at The Alley Theatre Strabane.

Photo credit: Sole Purpose Productions

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Float Like a Butterfly – a pugilistic examination of being caged into a community that isn’t as free as it supposes (QFT from Friday 11 May)

Compared with the observational style of Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl (2005), Carmel Winters’ new film Float Like a Butterfly has a very definite storyline and character journey.

Frances grows up in a community of Irish Travellers in rural Cork in the mid-1960s. Hazel Doupe plays the girl who idolises Muhammad Ali and would love to meet her hero. She trains on the beach and combines brains and brawn, something that her deceased mother valued, but her father (Dara Devaney) struggles to appreciate. Her Dad takes Frances and little brother Patrick (Johnny Collins) away from the encampment and they head out with their horse-drawn caravan on the road, a traumatic and somewhat circular journey that sees them return poorer in spirit and pocket.

It’s a story about loss: the loss of a bombastic father to prison after giving a vicious Garda officer a lame leg; the loss of a mother after a miscarriage; the loss of education and opportunity when the father is released; the loss of security; and the total lack of agency in a world which favours men and teaches boys to slap girls in order “to act like a man”.

Every face on screen is filled with character. Many scenes are shot from low down, giving a child’s eye viewpoint of the adult interactions. The primitive camping conditions and rich countryside colours are quickly established while a heavy score and some haunting singing by the cast injects the story with a sentimentality which, while somewhat overplayed, is balanced with an honesty about the weaknesses of this free-living.

The Irish Travelling community’s sexism and internal violence is contrasted with the racism and prejudice of those from the more settled community they encounter. One of the most telling scenes takes place in Uncle Bobby’s house: his settled behaviour – a self-imposed imprisonment in a cage of a happy home instead of being ‘free’ to roam in exile – irritates his extended family while his itinerant past upsets his neighbours..

Rather than providing resolution, the contrived ending – it would be impossible not to build up to a fight scene given the boxing references throughout – instead cements the masculine stupidity and grip of power over the women who burst through to explain that there is a better way but don’t seem to be able to escape the patriarchal cage that they have been trapped in.

Spanning all kinds of cinematic genres, Float Like a Butterfly is a coming-of-age movie, a road trip, an examination of filial love, as well as a search for freedom and identity. Ultimately, its success is down to the shining on-screen presence and piercing eyes of Hazel Doupe who pulls her vulnerable, pugilistic character up from the ground, time after time, becoming stronger with every bout and trial.

Float Like a Butterfly will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 17 May.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Preview – Mayday! Making (even more of) a drama out of Brexit with Rosemary Jenkinson (Accidental Theatre at the end of May)

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson is turning her satirical pen away from Stormont and is dipping her nib in the dark ink pot of Westminster with her latest rapid response work – Mayday! – a one woman show with Jo Donnelly playing Prime Minister Theresa May. I caught up with Jenkinson earlier this week …

After bringing the increasingly irreverent and fantastical tales of Michelle and Arlene to the Accidental Theatre stage four times over the last 22 months, it’s now the turn of Theresa May and Brexit?
I love the rapid response format as it’s important for theatre to confront politics head-on, Dario Fo-style. I had a great time with the Michelle and Arlene satires, but as the Stormont stasis is still ongoing, I’ve decided to switch to Brexit. It’s the huge political question of our era. When I spoke to Richard Lavery of Accidental in mid-April about a Theresa May play, we weren’t even sure if she’d stay in power till the end of May but that’s what makes the play exciting. The more dynamic the politics, the more dynamic the play. I also love satire. Comedy makes you laugh; satire makes you laugh and think.
The Prime Minister is turning out to be quite a remainer, delaying all attempts to get the removal van around to 10 Downing Street. What attracts you to write about her Brexit predicament? You have a certain (human, if not political) sympathy for May?
I connect with Theresa May, firstly, as she’s a strong woman and secondly as she’s been handed an unenviable task with Brexit. Once I researched her, I was fascinated by how single-minded and ambitious she’s been: her dream of becoming Prime Minister seems to date back to her teenage years. Even though Mayday! is highly critical of Theresa May and the government, it’s a one-woman show and so it’s vital to get inside her mind. Naturally, I have empathy for events in her life such as her parents’ deaths and how she and her husband tried to have children and couldn’t. Human understanding gives a richer texture alongside the satire.

Satirical humour of course relies on being heartless, but that doesn’t mean your characters should be emotionless ciphers. Jeremy Corbyn appears as a cardboard cut-out, so the last thing we need is Theresa to be one too! Theresa, it has to be said, hasn’t the most highly developed sense of humour, so her comedy moments, as in the Dancing Queen, tend to be hilariously inadvertent.
Are you excited about Jo Donnelly stepping into the kitten heels of the isolated Dancing Queen premier?
The first actor I thought of for Theresa May was Jo Donnelly. She’s such a brilliantly instinctive comic actor and at the read-through she delivered the lines exactly as I heard them in my head. I’ve been dying to work with her a long time, so to say I’m excited is an understatement. She may be twenty years younger, but she’ll nail Theresa’s essence and put her own hyperreal spin on the character. Jo loves playing parts outside the usual Northern Irish stereotypes.
Jeremy Corbyn's presence is felt throughout the play. There's a real sense that he's not the biggest threat to May?
I think Jeremy Corbyn is a fusion in this play between being Theresa’s enemy and a fellow victim of Brexit. Clearly, in real life Theresa’s biggest enemies are within her own party. Continuing Brexit talks with Labour is both an attempt to buy time and to make Labour share the blame when a deal can’t be reached, but her gambit has only served to alienate the Conservatives even more. Boris Johnson is definitely her main antagonist.
Can Brexit be redeemed by laughing at the madness that surrounds those who are trying to negotiate a deal?
The only way to deal with impasses just like Brexit and Stormont is to laugh at them. With Brexit, you simply have to ridicule the number of votes we’ve had in parliament and the continual failure to find agreement. As Theresa’s favourite Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, might have said, “Never in the field of human politics was so little achieved by so many for so few.”
Mayday! will be performed in Accidental Theatre, Shaftesbury Square on Thursday 30 and Friday 31 May and extended until Saturday 1 June. Tickets £8-£10. Between now and then, the Prime Minister will no doubt continue to write new chapters in her own tragi-comedy reality show.